Month: May 2018

wounded-kneeEvery summer, my parents make their annual visit to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, Connecticut to continue learning about the Pequot Indian tribe who lived in what is now the State of Connecticut.  They are one of the many tribes that called North America home prior to the arrival of European settlers and the creation of the United States.  Today, they can be found largely on reservations having been forced off of the only lands they knew to make way for a country that had liberated itself from British colonization.  Far too often, their plight is ignored and history books have traditionally re-written the history of the foundation of the United States of America.  This book by the late Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908-2002) challenges everything we thought we knew about our country and the scores of people often referred to simply as “the Indians”.

Hollywood has played a large part in the historical view by many of the Native Americans, the enemies of White Cowboys as depicted in Westerns and other television programs of the past.   John Wayne is admired by many as the icon of the American West.  The Native Americans, considered to be savages, uncivilized and dangerous became the object of the wrath of bloodthirsty soldiers filled with an ideology that could classified as genocide today.  The true story was carefully and deceptively hidden from public light but it has come out in more recent times.  And as the Native Americans and Indians of the Caribbean are shown in a more positive light, more of the truth will come to the surface.  Several cities here in America have now replaced the holiday of Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.  Columbus was only a small part of the story and he never set foot on North American soil.  But the actions of the municipalities were for the right reasons and I believe in time, more cities will follow suit.

In the wake of the American Revolution, a new nation was born with the desire to obtain as much land as possible under the guise of  “Manifest Destiny” and its actions changed the course of history and nearly exterminated the continent’s native inhabitants.  I am sure you have heard many of the names that became legends; Tecumseh (1768-1813),  Sitting Bull( 1831-1890), Geronimo (1829-1909), Crazy Horse (d. 1877) and Cochise (d.1874).  These leaders are revered in Native American history but are only small parts of a much larger and deadlier picture.  Their lives crossed paths with American soldiers whose names have become both famous and infamous such as Kit Carson (1869-1868) and General George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) whose last stand is sometimes fodder for situations in which a positive outcome is highly unlikely.  The battles that took place across the plains of North America reveal a violent struggle as two opposing of forces sought to maintain their own ways of life.  For the Native Americans, their goal was to live as they always had and not like the invaders who annexed territory and brought disease, starvation and death.  For the American soldiers,  the Indians were savages who needed to learn the White man’s way of life and give their hearts to Christianity.  The two systems were never compatible but Washington refused to accept any deals that would preserve Native American land.  The methods used to forcibly remove the natives are some of the darkest moments in American history.

It is imperative to keep in mind while reading the book that America did not yet have 50 states. In fact, the reader has to pay close attention to the location descriptions to form a picture of the region in which these events take place.  In comparison to clearly marked state boundaries today, land then was sometimes loosely divided among tribes with recognized boundaries by each side.  I do recommend having a map of Native American tribes while reading the book to gain a more accurate image.  Brown also adds small bonuses at the beginning of each chapters as he highlights the most important events that occurred.  Readers may find that they have bookmarked random facts that have nothing to do with the story at hand but are useful information to retain.

I warn the reader that the book is not always easy to read. The graphic descriptions of the atrocities committed in battle and the fate of the Native Americans are a rude awakening to any ideas about a graceful creation of America where the settlers and Indians worked side by side and everyone was friends.  This is the unfiltered truth and to say it is ugly would be an understatement.  Those of you who are of Native-American heritage will be familiar with the tragedies that befell your ancestors.  For others, in particular Americans, this book is a chance to fully understand how violence played a crucial role in the development of what is now a superpower.  We are unable to turn back the hands of time and change the course of history but what we can do moving forward is to acknowledge the tragic story of North America’s forgotten residents.

I firmly believe that this book, which was written in 1970, should be read by students in every history class across the country.  These are the stories that you will not find in textbooks that seeks to portray the history of this nation in the most positive light possible.  Interestingly, Native Americans are present in many of us today.  Millions of American have their blood running through their veins.  That heritage has sadly been forgotten or in some cases ignored.   But it is never too late to learn about those who gave up so much so that we are able to enjoy the privileges afforded to us. Their lives have never been the same and their heritage was nearly destroyed.  I hope that one day they too find the peace of mind that they have sought for so long.  And the next time you think about wearing a Native American costume for a party, this book might make you think twice.  This is the dark and ugly history of America and the mission to eradicate the Native Americans.

ASIN: B009KY5OGC
ISBN-10: 0805086846
ISBN-13: 978-0805086843

 

 

American History

20180528_191957Many of us believe that it could never happen here and that the United States is too stable and developed for the military to even attempt a coup.  The suggestion would be dismissed instantly by those who believe such things happen in Third World nations.  But what if it did happen in the United States? And how would the plot develop?  Fletcher Knebel (1911-1993) and Charles W. Bailey, II (1929-2012) put their minds together as they pondered these questions and others resulting in this masterpiece, Seven Days in May.  According to legend, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) liked the book so much that he allowed director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) to use the White House grounds while creating the film of the same name that was released in 1964 starring Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) and Kirk Douglas (1916-).  Kennedy did not live to see the film and his assassination was more than the writers could have imagined as they created this book.

The story is set in the 1970s and the main character is Marine Colonel Martin J. “Jiggs” Casey who begins to notice strange occurrences within the U.S. military which give the impression of the development of a dark and sinister plot that reaches all the way up the chain of command to the White House.  The President, Jordan Lyman, has recently agreed to a nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union.  The military brass is beyond infuriated and a majority of the American public views the treaty as a bad idea.  And while his approval rating has plummeted, Lyman is unfazed and believes he is doing the right thing.  After a joint chiefs meeting in which Casey comes into possession of a scrap of paper left by another office, he decides to go directly to the White House to warn the Lyman of what he believes a plot to remove him from office.  And from this point on, the book picks up pace and never slows down.

Unbeknownst to Casey, Lyman had been concerned with several strange events which occurred before their meeting.   As the parts begin to fuse together, the full nature of the comes down on the oval office like a sledgehammer.  Lyman realizes what is at stake and realizes he must act fast.  His first step is to put together his team of Senator Ray Clark, Secret Service Chief Art Corwin,  White House Appointment Secretary Paul Girard,  lawyer Chris Todd and Col. Casey to construct their counter-attack.  The plot to remove Lyman is the work of  U.S. US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Senator Fred Prentice, Colonel Ben Murdock, Colonel John Broderick and Air Force General Hardesty,  The teams have been decided, the stage has been set and before seven days have passed, a showdown will take place but the question is who will win the race against time?

Having read the book it is not hard to see why it was a success and caught the attention of Hollywood.  It is a thriller that keeps readers on edge of their seats as they turn the page to see what happens next.  The story reads like a film and contains all of the necessary elements.  A secret U.S. air base, mysterious death, clandestine meetings and right media combine as a credible threat to the security of the United States.  And as I read through the book, I kept asking myself could this happen in America?  And are we as a nation so secure in our belief in the constitution that we could never fathom a coup taking place on American soil?  As seen in the book, the plot developed at the highest levels of government and even then many high-ranking officials were unaware of the ECOMCON project, secret base and the transport maneuvers which NORAD had no knowledge of.  Compartmentalization is evident but the game turns into a chess match and the oval office has some of the best players in the game.

President Lyman comes through as a hero in the book especially when presented with damning evidence of transgressions in General Scott’s personal life.   And even when faced with one staggering blow after the next, he never waves in his ability to see things in political terms.  And while that can sometimes be a handicap, the president is a shrewd leader whose goal is to preserve the constitution and stop the conspirators in their tracks.  He is supported not only by his team but by others who believe in preserving the government from any type of attack and those who support his presidency. And what at first seems like a big jigsaw puzzle scattered across the country, comes together revealing what had been thought of as unimaginable.

As a reader of mainly non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which provided a change from my normal pursuit of historical information.  The pace is just right and as a person who loves history, the references to past presidents and events gives the book even more a feel of authenticity.   Each of the characters are interesting on their own but fit into the story precisely.  But this is a story that I hope remains a work of fiction and not a premonition of things to come.  Much has changed since this book was published but the reality is that every president has enemies and foreign is not always looked up favorably at home.  But what is paramount is that the president remains in control of the country at all times and if needed, by all means available.  This may be fiction, but we shall find ourselves in dark times if there ever is a real life version of Seven Days in May.

ISBN-10: 0060124350
ISBN-13: 978-0060124359

Fiction

Mary JOn July 18, 1969,  Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009) lost control of his vehicle while crossing the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was a twenty-eight old former staff member of Robert F. Kennedy’s (1929-1968) presidential campaign and member of a group of women known as the “Boiler Room Girls”.  She was later identified as Mary Jo Kopechne.  In death she became a permanent part of the history of Chappaquiddick and a reminder of what happens when we are negligent in our actions.  Over time she has been largely forgotten, having been overshadowed by the lives of the Kennedy family.  And with regards to Chappaquiddick, she has been known as the “woman in Kennedy’s car”.  But the real Mary Jo Kopechne has an interesting story of her own that was cut short at only twenty-eight years of age.

Her cousin, Georgetta Potoski and her son William “Bill” Nelson, decided to tell Mary Jo’s story so that we finally have a complete picture of her short but dedicated life to the causes she believed in.   Interestingly the book is not just about Kopechne’s short life but those of her parents Joe and Gwen whose lives were never the same after her death.  The thousands of letters they received and kept after the tragedy help to shed light on just how many people their daughter had an impact on.  Some of the letters are included in the book.  The photos shown in the book compliment the story at hand and reveal a close-knit and happy family that believed in reaching one’s full potential and the importance of hard work.   The Eastern-European roots of the family’s progenitors remain intact and their story is similar to that of other immigrants who came to America to make a new life.

We all know how she perished but what is often left out is how she became acquainted with the Kennedys.  That part of the story is filled in here with even more information about her time with  Senator George Smathers before joining the Kennedy camp where she would remain up until her death.  There are many interesting facts that are revealed in particular how important she was to Robert F. Kennedy whom was known to all as simply “Bobby”.

Readers expecting to find anything about Chappaquiddick will be disappointed. In fact, the authors intentionally left it out of the book.  I understand their decision for the book is about Mary Jo and not about the incident or the investigation that followed.  To have included with have resulted in a completely different book.  This is Mary Jo’s story or more appropriately, the story of her life that remains unknown to most.   Her cousins have done a great to her memory by presenting this book which gives a permanent voice to the often forgotten victim of Chappaquiddick.

ASIN: B07466W8S8

Biographies RFK

20180603_011546The definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one.  On October 13, 1972, Roberto Canessa was one of forty passengers aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 bound for Santiago, Chile.  The plane clipped the top of a mountain peak and crashed in a region known as the Valley of Tears.  Seventy-two days passed before all of the survivors were rescued.  Canessa and Nando Parrado, author of Miracle in the Andes, walked for ten days through the mountains  towards Chile to find help.  A peasant, Sergio Catalan, rode his horse for eight hours to notify authorities.  The ordeal of the survivors was turned into a book called Alive, and a film of the same name starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich.  In 2010, a documentary was released by the History Channel under the name of  I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash.  The films and books that have been published do an incredible job of allowing readers and viewers to step inside the nightmare than existed on that isolated mountain slope.  Here, Canessa tells his story but his account differs from the others not in facts but in presentation and focus.

Parrado’s book deals mainly with the time they spend stranded in the Andes.  The end of the book is focused on his life after the crash and updates on the other survivors. Canessa takes a different track and the book is not just about him but also about his family and patients.  A small part of the book is dedicated to the crash.  Canessa confirms statements given by Parrado both in his book and in the documentary.  But I honestly believe it is what happens in his life after the event that makes the book so intriguing.  As the story progresses, the reader will note that at times we are reading Roberto’s words and then another section will be the testimony of his children, father or patients.  These interviews were not conducted by Canessa himself. Vierci, a childhood friend and journalist, reached out to Canessa’s patients and obtained their recollections without his involvement.  I believe that this decision was critical to the book’s aura for it gives us a complete picture of not just the rugby player that survived the impossible, but also of a husband and doctor of medicine.

Dr. Canessa, as he has been known since finishing medical school in his native Uruguay, became a well-known cardiologist throughout the world. He has performed operations on scores of patients, mainly children and devoted his life to their survival.  But as we read the stories and read Canessa’s words, we get the feeling that the Andes mountains always remain present in his mind and as he admits, they shape the way he has viewed life since he returned to Montevideo. He certainly could have never imagined he would face death in the autumn of 1972 but the experience is one which no person can ever fully leave behind.

As a supplement to the book, numerous color photographs are provided by Canessa and families of his many patients.  The photos show the progression of age, wisdom and how far he has come in life. By his own admission, he has always been a bit rebellious and done things his way whether they were accepted or not.  But it is this rebellious nature that served him well as he and Nando walked for over seventy miles to find another trace of human existence.   The Chileans have a saying “the Andes don’t give back what they take”.  For the players and other passengers on Uruguayan Flight 571, the mountains almost took everything.  But sixteen young men held out hope, steeled their nerves and accomplished what no one thought could be done.

Dr. Canessa has lived his life applying the lessons he learned during that ordeal and his story will always amaze shock those who are discovering the story of the crash for the first time.  Like Parrado’s book, I read this one sitting.  His words and those are others are clear and in an easy to read format making the story flow smoothly without losing the reader’s attention.   And although the crash took place more than forty years ago, the story of their survival and the approach to life by Canessa are more than enough to inspire anyone.

ISBN-10: 1476765448
ISBN-13: 978-1476765440

Latin America

20180603_011625On October 13, 1972, Nando Parrado was a twenty-two year old rugby player with the Old Christians from Montevideo, Uruguay.  The team was en route to Santiago Chile for an annual match against a rival team.  As their Fairchild 227 flew north through the Andes following a navigational error by the plane’s pilots, it clipped the top of a mountain peak as the crew struggled to force the aircraft to climb over the deadly terrain.  The initial crash killed several passengers and by the time the survivors were rescued in December, 1972, only sixteen remained.  Their story was told by author Piers Paul Read in the 1974 book Alive and a film of the same title was released in 1993, starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich. In  2010, the History Channel released a documentary called I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash.  In the documentary, Parrado is main narrator sitting in front the camera as viewers relive the nightmare.  The film, book and documentary are accurate portrayals of the events that took place but are told by others who are relaying the stories of the survivors.  This is Nando Parrado’s story and the will to survive that led him and co-survivor Roberto Canessa to walk for ten days in the hope of finding another human being and help for the other passengers left behind.

In the film Alive, Parrado is played by Ethan Hawke and despite the lack of  Uruguayan Spanish in the film, Hawke provides a convincing portrayal.  However for all of the Hollywood’s special effects and production etiquette, the film still fails to fully convey the nightmare that was their ordeal.   Perhaps producers did not have enough time or felt that audiences would have revolted at all of the details.  What is clear from Parrado’s account is that the horror that existed on the mountain slope was more than anyone could have imagined.  Brutal, tragic and even macabre, it is a story that no filmmaker could write, such events happen by circumstance, albeit tragic.  The survivors of the crash would never be the same again and according to Nando, a couple of them struggled later in life.  But their story continues to amaze and inspire and is a prime example of the tenacity of the human will to live.

The beauty of this book is that these are Nando’s words as told by him.  And what we see is a young man who through fate, rises to the occasion through sheer determination to live or in the alternative meet his death while trying.  I have been to Montevideo and Punta Del Este, two important cities both in Uruguay today and in Parrado’s story.  I have also been to Argentina and what I found interesting was the rugby aspect of his account.  Football is without question the national sport throughout Latin America.  But as we learn from Nando, Christian missionaries who traveled to Uruguay from Ireland insisted that the students at Stella Maris learn the United Kingdom pastime of rugby.  And it was this game that served as the basis for their fatal flight.  As their situation unfolds, the teachings and team spirit kicks in as they lean on each other in the struggle for survival.

The accusations of cannibalism that they faced is addressed by Parrado and he explains how and why they reached the decision to consume the only food they had left; the deceased.  I cannot imagine what it was like mentally for them to even consider such an act let alone execute it.  But in desperate times, we often rely on desperate measures.  Readers will assuredly be divided on the issue but what we can all agree on is that had we been in that situation, we honestly do not know what we would have done until we were left with no other choices.

Although this is Parrado’s story, we also learn a great deal about the other players whom he becomes closer to as the ordeal goes on.  By the end of the book, it is obvious that he and Canessa have become extremely close and are still friends to this day.  They are bonded by their love of rugby and their shared experience on an isolated mountain in the Andes.  The other survivors all play a role in the story and Parrado does not neglect their contributions and importance.  I believe it is imperative to remember that many of the players were under twenty-five years of age. In fact, Carlos Páez Rodríguez turned nineteen as they face possible death.  At that age, I could have never fathomed being in such a situation and the courage, tenacity and creativity displayed by the survivors is incredible.

I enjoyed this book so much that I read it one sitting while home on a dreary Saturday afternoon.  But as I looked outside my window, I reminded myself that no matter how bad the weather is, it does compare to what Parrado, Canessa and the other survivors were forced to endure.   The book is called Miracle in the Andes for good reason, it truly was a miracle that anyone made it off that mountain alive.  Today at the age of sixty-eight, I am sure Nando Parrado remembers everything as if it happened yesterday.  And until the day they leave here, Parrado, Canessa, Páez and the others will always look back at the time they came face to face with death in the Andes mountains.   Now a husband and father of two adult daughters, Parrado is still a revered figure, known as an Andes survivor.  A former race car driver who raced in Europe,  he is long retired from the sport but his passion for all things in life is contagious and it is easy to see why he refused to give up his fight to live.  This truly is a miraculous story and a great read.

ISBN-10: 140009769X
ISBN-13: 978-1400097692

Latin America

Sagan_Cosmos

All of us at some point in our lives, have looked up at the night sky and observed the moon and stars that compose what we have come to know as the galaxy.  This world beyond the earth remains intriguing and mysterious to mankind. The possibility of other forms of life and planets that might be able to sustain the human race have fueled the fires of exploration.  Our desire to answer many of these questions, resonates with the quest to answer the biggest questions, how and why are we here?  Religion has attempted through time to provide those answers and for many believers, the scriptures are the final word.  But for other curious minds who believe there is more than can be found in a religious text, continue to explore and learn more about the world we all inhabit and the worlds beyond.   Each comes together to form what the late Carl Sagan (1934-1996) called the cosmos.   Sagan, of Brooklyn, New York, remains possibly the greatest astrophysicists in history.  He was also an astronomer, cosmologist, astrobiologist and author.  Younger readers may recall that he is remembered fondly by Neil Degrasse Tyson, a protegé of Sagan who has hosted a show also called the Cosmos.  This book and the show explore our origins and the complicated yet fascinating process of evolution.

Those of us who are deeply religions might be initially put off by the book because of the subject matter.  Sagan does not leave anything to fate or belief,  the sciences are on center stage here as we open our minds and go back in time throughout human history.  Neil Degrasse Tyson provides a foreword and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan provides a loving introduction.   As we begin the book, it is clear that Sagan is the teacher and we are the students with much to learn.   At times, it felt as is I had been transplanted back it time to grade school science.  However, Sagan explores material that I did not learn in school and only became familiar with as an adult. In fact, it was through Sagan that I learned the story of Johannes Kepler, who remains largely ignored in mainstream science books.  Sagan gives him a proper acknowledgment as a brilliant man whose contributions to what we know today cannot be overlooked.

Kepler is just one of many names in the book that should never be forgotten.  The path to knowledge over the past several thousand years has been long and arduous with many obstacles faced by those who dared to speak out against what was thought to be “common knowledge”. Their stories are intriguing and I wonder if any of them could have imagined society would have advanced to this point in 2018.   Perhaps they might disappointed that we have not made even further progress. Regardless of what they might believe, the fact is man has evolved drastically and what we know today is in a sense light years ahead of our ancestors.

The book is appropriately titled the cosmos and it is in this area that Sagan truly shines. Forget about science fiction films about space and shows about Martians.  Here he takes us on a voyage as we explore the known planets in our solar system.  The vivid and detailed descriptions of the planets we have named, vindicate Johannes Kepler, Nicholas Copernicus and others who understood that the earth rotates around the sun.   The amount of information that is known about the galaxy is nothing short of incredible.  And even more impressive is that there remains much more to discover.

Sagan is a good author and never lets the material become too complicated.  The information is presented thoroughly but in an easy to read format.  From the start, the book pulled me in deep an I committed myself to blocking out any ideas I may have had about the universe.  At times in the book, I felt as if I were learning science all over again in a refresher course before a highly important exam.  But this is no exam, this is our world and our role in it.  Our planet is at least four billions years old.  But if that is true, what life forms existed then and what happened to them?   And are we the only species of humans that have ever existed?  Could there be  a species on another planet in the galaxy that resembles humans?  Finally, if other species do exist,  are they aware of earth and have previously discovered out planet?  The possibilities are endless and that is what makes science so interesting and Sagan’s death a tragic loss.  Yes, science continues even though he has gone but his vision and accomplishments can never be denied. And as he firmly explains, in exploring the cosmos, we explore ourselves for we are a part of the cosmos.

I firmly believe that this book should be read by everyone.   This is the world’s history in science as it relates to the origins of mankind and our understanding of the worlds around us. Sagan is gone but far from forgotten and this gift he gave us is one that continues to give.  If you have the time and are willing, take a journey with him and explore the cosmos with a mind that is irreplaceable.

ISBN-10: 1531888062
ISBN-13: 978-1531888060

Evolution

World HistoryCan you imagine several thousand years of world history compressed into three hundred four pages? Before reading this book, I certainly did not and I believe the same applies to many others.  However,  that is exactly what Ernst Han Josef Gombrich (1909-2001) has done in this history book that came into existence as a result of challenge issued to the author to write a better history book than the one he was editing at the time.  The book was written in 1935 and subsequently re-published bringing it up to date with modern history events. Gombrich never intended for the book to replace all of the history textbooks in use by teachers and professors.  However, the book does serve as a complement to dozens of study aids used by students across the globe.  Interestingly, the book is geared towards the ages of seven to nine years but I think that readers of all ages will find it to be quite informative.

The pace of the book is fast and once we get started with the history of the world we know before Christ, we embark on a ride that does not slow down.  In fact, if there is one thing about the book that I felt detracted from it, it is that the pace is sometimes too fast leaving out critical information about various topics.   One example in particular is the huge lack of information on Genghis Khan, who is mentioned in passing.  Additionally, the majority of the focus is on the Middle East and Europe thereby excluding North America, Central America, Southeast Asia, South America and the majority of the continent of Africa.  I do not fault Gombrich for the focus of the text.  If he had written about all of those places, the book would have spanned several volumes.  To appreciate what he has done here, the reader should approach the book as a quick reference guide as opposed to a sole source of historical information.

In spite of its few shortcomings, the book is a good read that is engaging, informative and contains just enough information to give it substance while warding off boredom.  Gombrich was born in Austria, lived through the rise of Adolf Hitler and left Germany  in 1939 before World War II plunged the world into anarchy.  His comments and recollections about the Third Reich are an added but small bonus.  But what is undeniably clear, is that he is a part of world history and to this day, considered one of the world’s best historians.  His only child, Richard, is currently an Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit, Pāli, and Buddhist Studies and was once the Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford.

After I finished the book, I was surprised at how much material Gombrich did cover over the span of three hundred pages.  Compressing the text must have been a tedious job for even the best of editors.  Furthermore, there always exist the question of how much to add or leave out.  Perhaps no matter which way the book had gone, something would not have made the final cut.  I do believe it would have been more beneficial to have included more history about the west, Southeast Asia and Africa.   Undoubtedly it would have increased the number of pages but come much closer to a history of the world even if it is “little”.  Nevertheless, Gombrich did a more than sufficient job of taking us back in time.   And even if you are well-versed in world history, I feel that you still might enjoy this short but engaging read.  For those who have children, they might appreciate this gift more than you think.  Gombrich did not write the definitive book on world history but he did create and leave us with a valuable addition to any library.  But as the title says, it truly is a little history of the world.

ISBN-10: 030014332X
ISBN-13: 978-0300143324

World History

US HistoryWhen I think back on the history classes I attended in elementary school, high school and then college, I remember that it seemed as if it took forever to go through any topic.  And that says a lot for someone like myself who has always loved the subject and still does.  For most people, history is beyond mind-numbing and often revisits events in the past to which most people do not give a second thought.  But as we are often reminded through history, we need to know our past in order to reach our future.  In comparison to the history of Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, the United States is a very young nation that has been in existence less than three hundred years. Incredibly, in that short amount of time on the world stage, some of the most memorable events in modern history have taken place in North America and had reverberating effects across the planet.  If we were to study American in its entirety, that would be a course that would last a couple of years at least.  But what happens when you cram that history into a book that is three hundred nine pages long?

James West Davidson has done just that in this book appropriately titled  A Little History of the United States.  Perhaps the word little is a misrepresentation here for there is nothing “little” about the material contained within the pages of the book.  The author straps us in and takes on a ride through time to revisit the beginning of America and the path to becoming a world superpower.  Critics might think that they already know the material in the book.  While it is true that many of the events will be known to history buffs and those that paid close attention in class, there is a wealth of information that is useful to others and might even be unknown to even those who are well-read. And as a bonus, a refresher never hurts.  None of the information in the book is ground breaking and can be found in other places but what Davidson has done is to compress all of those sources into one book that touches on all of the major events in American history.   But the genius of the book is that it is not written in textbook format but rather a story that just keeps going and getting more interesting as we move closer to the present.

Now that I think more about it, the book could be considered a cliff note for U.S. history.  There is never too much information on one topic but just enough to give the reader the basic facts and a picture of what happened and why.  Those who have interest in certain topics will surely find other material to satisfy their thirst for knowledge.  I firmly believe Davidson was aware of this when he wrote the book and might even expect that to be the case.  At one point, he mentions that he could not have included everything on one particular topic for the book would have been several volumes long.  I agree wholeheartedly.  Putting that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the pace at which he keeps the reader is just right to make it through the book without any trace of boredom setting in.

As an American citizen, I am amazed at how much history of my own country that I am still learning.  I think the same could be said about many of my fellow citizens.  Harry Truman once said “the only new thing in the world is the history you do not yet know”. No matter how much we do learn, I feel that there will always be something that we have no knowledge of.   But we have the aid of books like this to help us on our journey.  Every student of American history should have this as a supplement to all of their primary books.  For now, sit back, relax and treat yourself to a little history of the United States.

ISBN-10: 030022348X
ISBN-13: 978-030022348

American History

comeyIt is not often that a former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation writes a book.  In fact, it is almost unprecedented.   In all fairness, there have been books written by former members of the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. intelligence apparatus.  When James Comey published this book, news outlets were eagerly waiting to get a copy of one of the most anticipated book releases in history.   The political climate of the United States is unlike anything most of us have ever seen.   There are a number of adjectives that come to mind, any of which could be rightfully applied to Washington, D.C.   Time will tell what will happen in the oval office.  The firing of James Comey through the media left many of us shocked, confused and even angry.   For some, it was just one more act by a vindictive and childish commander-in-chief.  Others believed that it was the right call as they believed the FBI was out of control.  I watched broadcasts that day and found myself astonished at the day’s events and wondering if this was just the start of a regrettable trend developing in the United States government.

During the 2016 president election, James Comey became a celebrity of sorts as a result of the bureau’s investigation of improper use of e-mail by Hillary Clinton.  She was never charged with a crime and given a warning about improper use of a mail server.  Several weeks later, it was announced that once again, the FBI was looking into the e-mail issue.  Critics of the FBI jumped on the announcement and blasted it as a smear campaign to discredit Clinton and tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump.   Whether the e-mails was the deciding factor that caused Clinton to lose the election, is still up for debate.  Comey was labeled all sorts of names by Clinton supporters and disliked even by some Trump supporters for not fully going after Clinton as they believed he should have.  Seemingly a man caught in the middle, he did his best to wade through difficult waters.  I have often wondered what really did happen and why did the FBI put out the statement about re-opening the investigation in Clinton’s emails?  Well, here in this book Comey answers that question and many others that have crossed the minds of millions of Americans.

The book is largely an autobiography where we learn about Comey’s childhood, his role as a husband and father and experiences in the U.S. Department of  Justice.  The young kid from Yonkers, NY, probably never imagined that one day he would lead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and find himself at the center of an election controversy.   What I found most interesting about the book is that Comey does not come off arrogant or self-pitying.   He is a neutral as you could expect.  It is clear that he truly believes in the bureau and the laws of the United States. But any beliefs about him being out to sabotage Clinton, help Trump or just make a mockery of the Department of Justice is ludicrous.  In fact, his revelation about his true feelings towards the election says a lot about how he approached his job.

Many of us are unaware of the sacrifices made by those who work in top positions in the U.S. Government. Long hours and time away family is often the norm and the jobs are sometimes quite unorthodox.  Comey speaks on this and the several times his family had to relocate as his career took yet another term is an example of the chaotic life that can come with service in government.   But not once does Comey complain and is grateful for everything he has done.  His story reads like that of an accomplished employee looking back on all that he has done.  That is until we get to the current President.

To say that the story takes a dramatic turn would be an understatement.   I do not believe that any of us knew exactly what would happen once Donald Trump took office.  The celebrity television star and real estate figure ran a campaign that bordered on the unreal at times.  But he received the electoral votes needed to become the next President of the United States.  Almost immediately, the relationship between Trump and Comey is filled with uneasiness and bizarre situations.   Readers might be tempted to believe that the book has turned into fiction but it does not.  The recollections come from Comey’s memos and memory of the meetings, the substance of which will make most people scratch their heads in bewilderment.  In addition, Comey puts to rest any notion people might hold about any relationship he has with Donald Trump.  And I would like to think that his very public firing confirms what Comey says about their prior encounters.  Most of the story will sound unbelievable but then again, the man in office was elected on a campaign that many thought was also unbelievable.

Regardless of party affiliation, if you believe in the laws of the United States and our  democratic institutions, the book is a good read about the Department of Justice.  And now we know the story of James Comey, who went from FBI Director to a man known to millions of people as the person unfairly fired by a President whose is beyond unpredictable. I do not know what the future holds for Donald Trump of James Comey but with this statement, the former FBI Director has taken a large step in clearing his name and reputation and telling his side of a most interesting story.

ISBN-10: 1250192455
ISBN-13: 978-1250192455

Biographies

hitchens1The title of this book is enough to cause a range of emotions in deist, agnostics and atheist.  Next to politics, religion is a subject which unites or divides, sometimes through the use of extreme violence. Today, when we think of religious fundamentalism, images of Islamic radicals readily come to mind causing us to forget that extremism exist is nearly every religion known to man.  In the United States, most deists are followers of monotheistic faiths.  Others are followers of polytheistic faiths and the remainder could be classified as agnostic, spiritual or even atheist.   Those who are atheist remain firm in their belief that God does not exist. But for deists, God does exist and is present all around us at all times.  But what if is there is no such thing as God?  Believers will find the mere mention of such a concept preposterous. But in all fairness, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell humanity what really happens when we die.  Furthermore, non-believers point to the world’s many ills as proof that an all-loving God is nothing more than make-believe.   Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) wrote at least thirty books, some of which like this, addressed religious faith.  Here, he takes on God and puts forth his argument that religion itself is the cause of many of the world’s ills.  One look at the cover will cause some to claim blasphemy and write Hitchens off as doomed and demented soul who surely found out when he died, that God does in fact exist.  Regardless of what side of the fence you are on, the book is a good discussion on the effect religion truly has on our lives.

In the book, Hitchens does not focus on one religion solely, he addresses multiple religions as he makes his argument.  He is clearly well-read and by his own admission, grew up in a Christian childhood.   His career has taken him to all parts of the world where he was able to examine other faiths up close. And the arguments he makes in the pages of this book are thought-provoking and it would extremely difficult for even the most ardent believers to ignore the many problems with religion that Hitchens discusses.   As a believer, when you think of your faith, it is seen in a positive light.  It helps people, gathers them together, provides answers and gives a sense of purpose.   But was that always the case and is religion even necessary to have all of the things that we seek through it?

There are thousands of gods worship throughout the world.   However, the most dominant religions are mainly monotheistic.  Jesus, Yahweh and Allah have claimed billions of followers world-wide.   Hinduism also claims a large number of followers who pray daily to the many Gods that are worshiped. In parts of Iran and the Middle East, Zoroastrianism is still practiced.   Exactly when each of these religions developed is lost to history.   Science tells us that man existed for thousands of years and that the planet is at least a four billion years old.  That forces the question, did God create man or did man create the Gods?  Furthermore, are Gods even necessary to live a full and purposeful life?

Hitchens pulls no punches in this book and makes his point clear that he truly believes religion poisons everything.   However what he does not do is tell anyone to give up their faith nor does he attempt to belittle anyone who believes in the Gods that he mentions.  And although he does believe that a world without religion would be better, he is mature enough to understand that some will continue to believe in the only religion they have ever known.   Atheists are often thought to be vile and vicious beings who want to rid the world of religion.  The opposite is usually the case.  Hitchens, like Richard Dawkins and others who have made a case against religion, is very rational and in no point in the book, does he use rhetoric to incite any type of violence or force anyone to become an atheist overnight.  Clearly, the decision to no longer believer or remain in the fold is up to the individual.  But what he does do, is provide examples from history of why he believes religion plays a negative role in society.  The book is a journey from mankind’s earliest known relationship with God all the way to the present and the growing numbers of people in the United States who have no religious affiliation at all.

I believe that is fairly obvious that in order to read this book an open mind is needed.  And I also believe that those who do purchase the book are either unwavering believers curious to see what Hitchens says and others who no longer believe or are on the path to living religion free. We all have to find our own path in life but if we need an honest and critical examination of the role of religion in society, this is a good place to start.

ISBN-10: 9780446697965
ISBN-13: 978-044669796

Religion & Spirituality